Coverage of a recent beef workshop

Two Friday’s ago I made the trek to Shaefferstown, PA, to a local meat market, invited by Morgan Firestine (you might know her blog, Animal Science News, or follow her on Twitter – @mfiretweets) to speak to cattle producers and high school agricultural science students about beef.  After all, May is Beef Month in Pennsylvania.  

It was crowded in the cutting room of the small butcher shop (which makes some awesome smoked snack sticks and summer sausage, by the way).  Yet, we had an excellent workshop, as this article from last weeks Lancaster Farming suggests.

Meat Carcass Workshop Teaches Beef Facts

Submitted by Editor on Fri, 05/21/2010 – 11:39am.

Sue Bowman
Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

SCHAEFFERSTOWN, Pa. —With summer approaching, many steaks will be hitting the grill over the next few months. If you’re looking for advice on selecting something tender and juicy, you might want to seek out a member of Berks County Pa.’s Conrad Weiser High School FFA. Eleven of its members attended a meat evaluation workshop recently at Stohler’s Meat Market in Schaefferstown, Pa., where they got quite an education about what’s what when it comes to beef.

Their mentor for the afternoon was Christopher Raines, assistant professor of meat science at Penn State. He made his presentation using a side-by-side comparison of beef from an Angus cross with meat from a dairy beef steer; the steers were provided by the Conrad Weiser agriculture department.

While both animals had been about 1,400 pounds live weight, the Angus cross dressed out at 934 pounds hanging weight compared with 764 pounds for the dairy steer. Raines pointed to this as an example of why producers get more bang for the input buck with beef cattle.

When looking at relative tenderness of the various cuts of beef, Raines explained that meat is actually muscle; thus, you can predict how tender a cut is going to be by the use of that muscle.

Round steak comes from the butt, a muscular area that gets a lot of exercise, so it tends to be a tougher cut than the loin area, which sees the least amount of activity and therefore produces meat that is the most tender. Flank steaks originate from the abdominal region, so the well-used muscles there result in a chewier meat that might make a good fajita.

Meats are graded at processing plants, with standard, select, choice and prime being the hierarchy of designation categories. Surprisingly, Pennsylvania is home to more USDA approved slaughter plants for beef than any other state, with 80; when no-kill and smaller custom butchering operations are taken into account, Pennsylvania can lay claim to about 900 such operations. In the larger plants, a meat evaluator might grade as many as 400 carcasses an hour, with grading decisions being made as quickly as 10 seconds.

What distinguishes prime and choice grades from the rest of the pack, and which indicators does an evaluator look at?

One readily visible factor affecting meat evaluation is marbling — the amount of fat that runs though the meat. While marbling adds flavor and moistness, top ranked beef, classified as “prime,” can be too greasy for some palates.

Prime and choice designations also go to younger maturity classes, as older animals produce meat that tends to be tougher with less desirable flavors.

When grading meats from cattle of unknown ages, the evaluator can tell the meat from an older animal because it will appear darker in color and its cartilage will have started to turn into bone.

Although meat is graded after being chilled overnight, allowing beef to hang for about two weeks of dry aging allows enzymes within the meat to make it more tender. Most commercially sold beef is packaged before shipping and then wet-aged 7-10 days during the shipment process. While some leaner cattle can dry out during dry aging, this process is still viewed as the best path to the most desirable beef.

The FFA members got to test themselves at grading the two beef carcasses, both of which had been dry-aged at Stohlers for two full weeks. To assist them in this process, Raines displayed color photos of various grades of meat so they could attempt to match the carcass characteristics with the pictures. As they did so, Raines noted the irony that the U.S. currently imports a lot of low-quality beef for fast food, while exporting a lot of high-quality meats and organs, such as the liver, heart and kidney, to other countries where these specialty meats are more highly valued.

When questioned about the merits of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef, Raines indicated that neither is a good source of so-called “healthy fats.” Thus, while grass-fed beef may have two to three times more healthy fats than their grain-fed counterparts, one would have to consume as much as 17 pounds of grass-fed beef per day to receive any appreciable benefits.

A down side of grass-fed beef is that it can take longer to finish because of the seasonal nature of the grass these cattle consume. This, in turn, can lead to cattle which are older at slaughter and not necessarily still prime or choice grades.

Raines also fielded a question about the effect of hormones on meat quality.

Research has shown that administered hormones make little or no difference in meat quality, he said. As an example, Raines pointed to a pregnant cow as having many times the amount of estrogen in its system compared with an animal that has been given hormones.

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